In response to a massive wildfire that burned more than 11,000 acres across the South Carolina mountains last year, legislators are giving the state more authority to ban campfires during risky weather conditions.
The House on Thursday approved a proposal 94-6 that would move campfires under the State Forester’s purview when he declares an outdoor burning ban. Under current law, such temporary bans are typically ordered during windy days combined with dry conditions. The ban covers yard debris, trash burns, or fires set for agricultural purposes, but not recreational burns. The measure will head to the Senate next week.
State Forester Gene Kodama issued such a ban across five Upstate counties on November 9, the same day a wildfire flared up on Pinnacle Mountain in Pickens County. Investigators believe the blaze started from a campfire that got out of control. The later-named “Pinnacle Mountain fire” eventually burned across three counties and scorched much of Table Rock State Park and the Greenville Watershed, although no structures were damaged in the remote wilderness.
“They didn’t have a way to prohibit campfires,” the bill’s sponsor State Rep. Mike Burns, R-Taylors, said. “With 11,000 acres burning, if you wanted to go up and have a recreational campfire, they couldn’t tell you not to do it.”
Forestry Commission spokesman Doug Wood emphasized the law would not have prevented the Pinnacle Mountain Fire, since the burn ban at the time came almost simultaneously with the fire’s start. But he said the Forestry Commission supports the change. “There’s no reason, we don’t believe, that recreational campfires shouldn’t be covered,” he said.
The State Park Service goes further and bans campfires inside its properties whenever an outdoor burn ban is in effect, according to Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism spokeswoman Dawn Dawson-House. The State Forester’s order only covers unincorporated areas of South Carolina and does not impact property on federal property or inside town or city limits.
Another section of the bill would increase the penalties for those who violate outdoor burn bans. The proposal would double the fine for a first offense from $100 to $200 and up to 30 days in jail, and raise any future offense penalties from $300 to $500 and/or 60 days in jail for a second offense. Some members had proposed tougher penalties of $300 for a first offense and $750 for a second, but that was rejected in a 57-33 vote. Burns said he wanted to keep the penalties in line with other sections of state law.